Category Archives: Spring Edition

The Nielsen Rating System’s Downfalls

by Sammie Crowley

The Nielsen rating system’s ability to correctly estimate the total number of viewers for a program has been called into question many times before. Viewers want to be counted and they want their opinions to be known, as part of the effort to encourage better programming. A major problem with the current Nielsen system is that it only takes into account live television numbers while the world of internet viewing and DVR technology is exploding therefore comprising a large chunk of all television viewers. Standard quantitative Nielsen data is no longer enough for broadcasters to make informed decisions about their programming. In order to keep up with a changing technological front that gives viewers more freedom and power than ever, the Nielsens need to take into account qualitative feedback, online media and live television numbers, and consider fan devotion in an expanding world of fan culture.

Cultural studies are about finding meaning in television programs (O’Donnell 149). Viewers form a relationship with programs and interpret them to find a meaning that is suitable for them (O’Donnell 149). Viewers must process what is presented to them on television and call on their previous life experiences to make sense of situations (Alcock). It is imperative to mentally process television in order to fully understand and grasp subtle plot changes as well as keep tabs on characters and motivations (Alcock).

An individual needs to have certain experiences to appreciate most television situations (Gibert 1). One has to apply his or her cultural knowledge to understand and identify with characters, leading to a rich television experience (Gibert 1). If a viewer is appropriately engaged he or she can derive a variety of meanings from simple exchanges and scenes (O’Donnell 150). A viewer also has to have knowledge of the medium and be able to determine the difference between what is constructed on television and what is real in life (Gibert 2).

When a viewer watches television, at the very least, he or she is interpreting the language that is spoken. Television uses certain patterns and one must be well versed in the subtleties that help distinguish what is relevant to the plot and what is extraneous information (Gibert 2). Interpretation is the key to enjoying television, as the viewer enjoys noticing patterns and being able to guess where the plot is heading (Gibert 4).

Raymond Williams is a key contributor to cultural studies (O’Donnell 151). He was a professor at Cambridge University who believed that an individual cultural work should never be taken on its own, but rather must be considered in the context of all works in a particular culture (O’Donnell 151).

The way an individual interprets the medium can be heavily impacted by who they are watching the program with, where he/she is watching it and whether or not he/she chose to watch it (Alcock). If an individual ritually watches a specific show at a specific time he/she will pay much closer attention to it than if it was simply stumbled upon when channel surfing (Gibert 4). A viewer who is watching a program that someone else selected is more likely to criticize the program: he or she will look for flaws and not pay as close attention as normal because someone else selected that show (Alcock). If a person watches a program with others he/she is more likely to react more harshly and vocalize their thoughts and opinions (Alcock).

Gender, sexual orientation, national origin and religion are some of the personal attributes that impact how we interpret television (Gilbert 4). If the viewer agrees with the dominant ideology he is likely to interpret the meaning that the creator had intended (O’Donnell 153). Hegemony describes the representation of these social norms and is an important term in cultural studies. It refers to the set of values and beliefs that encompasses a society so completely that it is regarded as normal and the obvious way of life (O’Donnell 153). Hegemony gives one group dominance over all the other groups (O’Donnell 153).

In a represented social society there are three types of social positions for decoding symbols presented in media (O’Donnell 155). A dominant position means that the viewer decodes the creator’s intended meaning; an oppositional position means that the viewer takes the opposite view from the creator; and the negotiated position holds a view somewhere between agreeing with the intended meaning and the oppositional position (O’Donnell 155).

Cultural studies, and more specifically how a viewer interprets the media, are important in deciphering how programs are enjoyed. The viewer has to interpret the program favorably to enjoy it and if he or she agrees with the dominant ideology, the audience member will relate to the show and find it enjoyable. Connecting with the program is important for qualitative ratings; if a viewer decodes the show in a way he/she finds enjoyable; he or she is more likely to rate the show highly.

There has been growing concern about the validity and usefulness of data gathered by the Nielsen rating system. Skeptics have suggested that some of the Nielsen data is even artificially created, while others worry about its validity in assessing demographics because only about thirty-five percent of statistics gathered are counted and considered usable. The Nielsen ratings are based on a representative sample with randomly selected houses, referred to as basic units (Milavsky 102 -106).

If a household that is randomly selected refuses to enter the program, a household that is geographically close and similar in number of children (or lack of children) will be recruited in its place (Milavsky 106). The people recruited must be a fairly accurate representation of nearby households, in terms of family makeup, as well as what kinds of cable and television technology they have (DVRs, satellites, etc) (Milavsky 107). Unfortunately, it is almost impossible to maintain a representative sample as sixty-two percent of people leave the Nielsen program every year, two-thirds of those people exit the program early due to non-compliance or moving (Milavsky 109).

The new household added, either an alternate house or the tenants of a former Nielsen home, brings new demographics, which corrupt the supposedly representative sample (Milavsky 107). In addition, Nielsen is continually cycling in more families to try and make up for the extremely high dropout and noncompliance rate, which often creates an imbalance in geographical representation (Milavsky 106). The belief that any person’s television viewing habits can be arbitrarily replaced with those of a person of roughly the same age and gender is questionable. The rating system insinuates that all viewers in the same category will have similar taste in shows without attempting to categorize people by their taste and program type preference.

The Nielsen “people-meter” system has members of the family plug in their individual code to log themselves as watching a given program (Milavsky 103). This log in must be repeated if the channel is changed or after seventy minutes on the same channel to indicate the person is still watching (Milavsky 103). An immediate problem with this system is figuring out how to deal with a viewer who is in and out of the room or present but not actively watching the television (Milavsky 109). Another problem is contending with guest; if a guest is watching television at a Nielsen home they are prompted to indicate their age and sex to log their viewership. All of this means that they know they are viewing in a Nielsen home, which in and of itself corrupts the data (Milavsky 110).

The Nielsen system is complex, but incomplete. Even their raw numerical statistics are suspected to be corrupt and most avid television viewers do not think that a representative sample taken from selected viewers, who often fail to participate, is enough to indicate how many people are actually watching a show. In a world with such advanced technology it seems that the Nielsens should expand to include as many people as possible, gathering a more accurate sample. There are many more problems with the Nielsens but one of the largest complaints is that it just delivers raw data and has no room for a qualitative scale.

All over the world there has been an increasing desire for a qualitative feedback system in addition to standard quantitative ratings. Ratings take into consideration anyone who is present when the show is playing, but fails to take into account how engaged the viewers are. Because there is no distinction between which programs the audience actively watches and which they simply play in the background, many believe that the current ratings system is inadequate. Qualitative figures will be a necessity as television develops and diversifies over different platforms and over many channels. As more channels come into existence, audience fragmentation is likely to occur as more channels leads to more viewing options. More viewing options will also lead to more “channel-grazing”, where the viewer can attempt to watch multiple programs at once by flipping between them, a practice which is very difficult to measure in the current Nielsen system (Gunter).

As the market expands it will be imperative for broadcasters to understand what engages the viewers’ attention and which programs have strong loyalty and viewers who are liable to watch repeat viewings. Learning how viewers enjoy a program is a great way to predict if the viewer is likely to watch the program the next time it airs and the subsequent episodes every week. A viewer with a high appreciation score of a show is the most likely to be an avid viewer whom the broadcasters can rely on to tune in every week. Also, avid viewers of one type of program are also more likely to tune into a different program of the same type (Gunter).

Broadcasters would benefit from a qualitative and more informative ratings system, in part because it would help them to characterize the audience for the advertisers, letting them know who the audience is that they are reaching (Gunter). Also, the advertisers would find it useful to know how the program that they are advertising during is being received (Gunter). The reception correlates positively with the products advertised; if a program has high viewer intensity and positive reaction, the audience is more likely to go out and purchase items that were advertised (Gunter).

Those in favor of a qualitative system believe it is totally feasible to create a system bench marked by quality ratings from the viewers. In the United Kingdom the Audience Reaction Indices have been taking qualitative measures from the audience and supplying them to the broadcaster as a way of adding to the straight statistical ratings data. This has become a common practice in Europe and many other countries are beginning to supplement raw data with qualitative feedback (Gunter).

Some broadcasters have been resistant to the idea of qualitative ratings. They claim that the ratings system is already complex enough and deals with advertisers already include extensive formulas that would be impossible to relate to subjective non-numerical data. Broadcasters also believe that qualitative reactions would be too difficult to collect (Gunter).

While quantifying qualitative data will not be simple, it has the possibility to revolutionize the way that broadcasters look at their programming. If the networks could be more informed about their programs, they could make better decisions on which programs to retain and which to cancel. As viewers get more opportunities to choose which programming they watch it will become more important to make programs that are well received.

Networks view ratings as a way of gauging the taste of their target audience (McDonald 64). The most successful broadcasters try to constantly update their programming so they are always in tune with changing audience taste, they stick with program formats and types which are popular or becoming popular and try to stay on trend (McDonald 63). While they have become something that plays a huge role in television, program types were created to help networks and advertisers define types of programs that could reach the same audience as other popular programs.

The way people watch television and interact with the media has been changing rapidly. Beginning with the ability to record shows on a VCR, technology has advanced to digital video recorders (DVR) which allow people to be less bound to traditional television schedules (Bowen 573). Along with DVR technology, using the internet as a way to view television media has skyrocketed (Greenfield 72). Hulu and are examples of two video services which are run by broadcasters and have made their shows available, on demand, to anyone with high speed internet (Greenfield 72). This technology has been expanding and many believe that streaming on-demand video is the future (Greenfield 73). Apple and Roku have both released devices that connect the computer to the television, allowing those who own the product to stream video onto their regular television, rather than watching it on a computer monitor (Greenfield 73).

In addition to streaming video to television, video on portable devices has become increasingly popular. It is becoming more and more common to have shows within reach at all times, either through an iPod or a cell phone. Being able to have television on a cell phone plays into the idea that anyone can access the information he or she wants wherever he/she is and whenever he/she wants (Greenfield 75). Despite the diversification of media across different platforms some still contend that television is the “mothership” of all TV (Palser 70), and claim that views from these sources do not need to be accounted for. While most traditional programs are still watched on live television, younger generations continue to look to the internet in instances where older generations looked to the television. Things like weather, sports scores, news and more are being sought out more and more frequently on the internet (Palser 70).

With the limitlessness of the internet providing consumers with endless options, it becomes even more important to put out a good product. People can be increasingly selective in what they choose to watch and with DVRs and Hulu, they can make a concerted effort to catch certain programs regardless of time constraints (Greenfield 73).

Television being viewed on the internet has huge implications for the way ratings are tabulated. While there are individual ways of measuring these, there is no definitive system for combining television ratings with views online. There is also a diversification among the way that shows are viewed; streaming videos from the broadcasters’ websites, purchasing shows from iTunes, as well as illegal downloaded torrents of shows. All of these people are watching the show and should be counted in a ratings system, but are often overlooked.

There have been attempts in the past to make sense of all of these figures. NBC tried a system called TAMi, Total Audience Measurement Index. This index combined traditional television ratings from the Nielsens, data from web and mobile use from Ominture, and information from Rentrak for video on demand. They boasted that it was a new way to follow ratings over several platforms, but they failed to develop it and went back to primarily considering Nielsen ratings (Palser 70).

Another avenue that broadcasters should consider is web activity related to their programming. Viewers can now venture online, expanding their total television experience, and bringing water cooler talk to the next level. The audience is now able to go on the internet and get a more in-depth experience with character blogs, detailed plot summaries, and sometimes even games. These opportunities have extended television’s role in viewers’ lives, making them more active consumers than they have ever been (Bowen 571). Television is no longer limited to the screen, but instead can extend to franchises and merchandising (Sandler 84).

Networks would benefit from considering the level of audience involvement, as it is a great predictor of future viewings. Week to week, new shows get back less than fifty percent of the audience they had the week before (Barrett 5), making it important to have a dedicated fan base. Devoted fans are not only more likely to continue watching new episodes, but are also likely to purchase DVD sets and merchandise, all of which make money for the network. Avid fans are also more likely to become fans of other similar shows on the same network, leading to a more consistent overall audience. If networks can learn to cultivate dedicated fan bases for their shows they will find that other areas of their business will become more profitable.

Fans in the past have also launched campaigns to save their shows. In 2009 there was a “Save Chuck” campaign that involved the fans of Chuck going to Subway (an advertiser in the show) and purchasing subs on the day of the season finale (Save Chuck). This movement was intended to show advertisers the buying power of fans. While renewing Chuck after this campaign has not necessarily paid off for NBC, as the ratings have not increased, it led to a stronger product placement deal with Subway. NBC also cultivated some network loyalty by responding to fans (Save Chuck).

Fan loyalty is key in maintaining a stable network. If broadcasters can learn to use the online world and fan culture to their advantage, to build hype and word of mouth exchange amongst fans, they could reap the benefits. Fans culture can immerse viewers into the world on a new level causing others to become curious over what all of the fuss is about.

The Nielsen homes represent a tiny portion of the actual country. The idea that this small sample could possibly be representative of the entire nation is ludicrous. If the Nielsens refuse to update to include quality responses, DVR, and online media numbers, the least they could do would be to start counting a much wider sample of people, if not everyone. The technology exists for every person to have a Nielsen box or for the Nielsens to directly connect to a cable box and get their numbers information via that mechanism. The Nielsen Rating system needs to make serious changes in order to better serve the networks and the people.

Sammie Crowley is a senior at Columbia College Chicago studying writing for television. She developed a special interest in the Nielsens in 2007 when it seemed all her favorite shows were perpetually on the brink of cancellation. Fascinated by the way the numbers worked, she quickly began to notice flaws in the way they were construed. She has since become obsessed with checking ratings and waits impatiently every week to hear the Chuck overnight numbers.

Works Cited

Alcock, Katrina. “In What Ways is Watching TV an Active Process of Interpretation Rather Than a Passive Process of ‘Assimilating Information’?” Active TV Viewer. Apr. 1997. Web. 22 Feb. 2010.

Barrett, Marianne. “The Relationship of Network Affiliation Change to Prime Time Program Ratings.” Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media 43.1 (1999): 98. Academic Search Premier. Web. 25 Mar. 2010.

Bowen, Tracey. “Romancing the Screen: An Examination of Moving from Television to the World Wide Web in a Quest for Quasi-Intimacy.” Journal of Popular Culture. 41.4 (2008): 569-90. Academic Search Premier. Web. 27 Mar. 2010.

Gibert, Marie. “Watching Television of Film as an Active Process of Interpretation.” May 2003. Web. 22 Feb. 2010.

Greenfield, Howard, and Wes Simpson. “2009 IPTV Update.” SMPTE Motion Imaging Journal 118.6 (2009): 72-75. Computers & Applied Sciences Complete. Web. 25 Mar. 2010.

Gunter, Barrie. “On the Future of Television Ratings.” Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media 37.3 (1993):359-65. Academic Search Premier. Web. 25 Mar. 2010.

McDonald, Daniel G., and Russell Schechter. “Audience Role in the Evolution of Fictional Television Content.” Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media 32.1 (1988): 61-71. Academic Search Premier. Web. 25 Mar. 2010.

Milavsky, Ronald J. “How Good is the A.C. Nielsen People-Meter System?” Public Opinion Quarterly 56.1 (1992): 102-15. Academic Search Premier. Web. 25 Mar. 2010.

O’Donnell, Victoria. Television Criticism. Minneapolis: Sage Publications, Inc, 2007. Print.

Palser, Barb. “Measuring Across Platforms.” American Journalism Review 30.5 (2008): 70. Academic Search Premier. Web. 25. 2010.

Sandler, Kevin. “Teaching Media Convergence.” Cinema Journal 48.3 (2009) 84-87. Academic Search Premier. Web. 25 Mar. 2010. Save Chuck. CNN. 5 Aug. 2009. Web.

The Positives of Negativity

by Meg Ryan

Throughout the course of any general election, there is one component that never varies regardless of the cycle, and that is the public’s stance on negative political advertisements. Without exception, each election cycle creates a climate of constant hand wringing and denunciation about how horrible attack advertisements are. I posit that negativity is just a much a part of democracy as the democratic process itself. Negative political advertisements are frequently condemned for being malicious and unfair; however, negative advertisements serve an important role in this country’s democracy. Negative ads inform voters, increase accountability among candidates, and contain more valuable information than their positive counterparts. By discussing the rhetorical tactics used, and by examining several notorious presidential campaign ads throughout the decades, I will determine the purpose and validity of negative political ads. The campaigns scrutinized will include: the 1964 Johnson v. Goldwater campaign, the 1988 Bush (H. W.) v. Dukakis, and the 2004 Bush (W.) v. Kerry campaign. Negativity has played a vital function in the preservation of freedom in the United States since the birth of the nation and must be defended.

A fundamental understanding of the basis of rhetoric is essential before discussing the topic of negativity. This is because the art of persuasion and the tools it incorporates (when done correctly) are so subtle, that they often go unnoticed to the uneducated spectator. Being aware of the devices of rhetoric make for a more conscious and conversant listener. Rhetoric is the art of using language and symbols to persuade or influence. This theory is trying to explain how language can be used and manipulated to influence audiences with certain messages. In general, the theory breaks down the various components of persuasion and examines how each element can be molded to create a stronger argument or message. It also inspects how the formation of each element is both dependent on the other facets and has a combined effect on the outcome of the entire message. The validity and success of any message is a product of the quality of substance in each mechanism that makes up the argument. The theory studies how people use persuasion in order to reach a greater understanding about the society they live in.

One important theorist in rhetoric was Aristotle. Aristotle created the classical definition of rhetoric which has inspired subsequent theories.  Aristotle defined the use of rhetoric as the capability to perceive the opportunity for persuasion in any particular situation (Rapp). That being said, it is not so much that rhetoric when used effectively will be able to persuade a person no matter what the circumstances, but rather, rhetoric, no matter how strong the persuasion, will not be able to convince everyone. Aristotle believed that rhetoric “is a neutral tool that can be used by persons of virtuous or depraved character” (Rapp). In other words, rhetoric is inherently neither good nor bad, but rather, the person or rhetorician determines the nature of the message they are trying to persuade others with.

Aristotle had five categories for the key components of rhetoric: invention, arrangement, style, memory, and delivery. Invention is the content or substance of a message. Arrangement is how to organize the content of the message. Style is expressing the content of the message in a fashion or manner that is effective. Memory is how the message content is learned or accessed. Delivery is how the message is presented to an audience. All arguments must be substantiated using proof, according to Aristotle, and proof comes in one of two forms. The first is inartistic, which is proof that the persuader can use as evidence, but cannot manipulate (O’Donnell 140). For example, if a person is trying to prove a point about Chicago weather, they can refer to the current weather at that time, but they have no control over the climate itself. The other form of proof is artistic, which is evidence that the persuader can invent or influence, basically the construction of logical reasoning itself (O’Donnell 140). Aristotle claimed that in rhetoric there are three types of proofs: ethos, pathos, and logos. Ethos revolves around the credibility and character of the persuader, relying primarily on the integrity and reputation of the speaker (Crewell). Pathos incorporates emotional connections in the persuasion itself, as well as the emotional interest of the audience (Crewell). Finally, logos focus on the use of reasoning for the audience (Crewell). Logos proof is derived from the use of examples or through enthymemes. Enthymemes are the active process involved in rhetoric that allows the speaker and audience to collectively come to a conclusion through shared logic (O’Donnell 141). Enthymemes complete the process by allowing the audience to determine the success of the message being presented.

With a rudimentary understanding of rhetoric, it is now possible to examine how persuasion applies to political advertisements. When purchasing a car, how might one go about making a decision? Would they only pay attention to what the car dealership has to say about the car, which would only tell the positive traits of the vehicle? Or would they look for outside information about the car–consumer review magazines, personal stories, or safety ratings–to find out any potential negative traits? Hopefully, most Americans would go with the latter. The same principles apply to candidates. The candidates, much like the dealership, are only going to provide the positive aspects of their campaign. The negatives have to come from some outside source. Every choice I make, be it what car I buy, college I attend, or candidate I elect, needs to be evaluated through the positive and negative aspects. So I need both kinds of information to make a decision.

Somewhere in the middle of these competing parties, people stop playing nicely and start attacking one another. Negativity occurs between candidates because there are partisan disagreements in this country. Despite the current notion that presidential candidates are all the same and blur party lines, there is a fundamental difference between Democrats and Republicans. These partisan differences lead to discrepancy, which then leads ultimately to negativity. Since the 1960s, there has been an upward trend observed in the amount of negative political advertisements used during any given election cycle (Geer, “In Defense” 36). This further justifies why society needs to understand negative advertising, since it is becoming all the more commonplace in society.

The 1964 presidential race was a brutal battle between incumbent president Lyndon B. Johnson and Republican candidate Barry Goldwater. During this election cycle, there were many important issues at stake, so to speak, but the most pressing issue on everyone’s mind was nuclear war. The 1960s were a turbulent time for America. The country was at the height of the Cold War, in a space and arms race between communist Russia. The United States had already experienced enough nuclear scares since the beginning of the sixties, with the Bay of Pigs Invasion in 1961 and the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.

In 1961, newly elected president John F. Kennedy planned and funded the overthrow of Fidel Castro’s tentative communist government by Cuban exiles. The exiles were quickly defeated, as the United States government failed to provide the CIA and military backup they had promised, an event now known as the Bay of Pigs Invasion (Van Hoesel). This lead to the Cuban Missile Crisis the following year, where US spy photos revealed the nuclear missile in Cuba, supplied by the Soviet Union. Kennedy, realizing how dangerous the situation was, opted out of direct military confrontation (i.e. another invasion) and instead imposed a strong naval blockade on Cuba. After a set of intense negotiations between Kennedy and Khrushchev, the USSR agreed to remove their nuclear arms in Cuba in exchange for a non-invasion agreement and removal of US nuclear arms from Turkey (Van Hoesel). Though the Cuban Missile Crisis had a peaceful resolution, the American people would never forget the fear and apprehension that transpired in October of 1962, a concern that would become a major issue in the following presidential elections.

The Daisy ad (or Peace Little Girl ad) run by Lyndon B. Johnson during the 1964 presidential race is the most notorious example of negative political advertisement to date. This infamous spot opens with a small girl in the middle of a field, counting peddles of a daisy she is holding as she plucks them off. When the girl reaches the number nine, a menacing voice counts down from ten, as the camera zooms in on the child’s face, then cuts to a nuclear explosion. This blast is accompanied by Lyndon Johnson saying, “These are the stakes. To make a world in which all of God’s children can live, or to go into the dark. We must either love each other, or we must die.” Another, more seductive voice then says, “Vote for President Johnson on November 3rd. The stakes are too high for you to stay home” ( This spot only aired once, during the NBC Movie of the Week on September 7, 1964, but its impact on the election was enormous.

Political advertisements, whether negative or positive, typically all have one thing in common: the use of rhetorical tools, such as logos to provide evidence to support the points stated in these ads, and to verify the merits of the candidate’s claims or indiscretions. The interesting thing about the Daisy ad – what separates it most from all previous negative political ads, and most of those that followed – is that it did not contain a single fact or piece of evidence to backup any point it was trying to make. It did not manipulate quotations, statistics, or documentation that negatively reflected the opponent in anyway. Likewise, it did not once mention the opponent, Barry Goldwater, at all during the minute long spot.

Instead of a using a direct attack against Goldwater, using personal quotes or calling into question the senator’s stance on an issue, for example, the advertisement used an indirect, implied attack to get the message across effectively. In order for the advertisement to get its message across, the audience had to have prior knowledge of Goldwater’s past remarks about nuclear warfare (Geer, “In Defense” 57). Goldwater had joked about dropping an atomic bomb into the men’s room at the Kremlin at one point, and as a Republican, he had a partisan tendency to be more prone to arms use than a Democrat (Geer, Personal Interview). If the audience saw Goldwater and nuclear bombs, it was because they had that background information and made the connection come to life.

Barry Goldwater, Johnson’s Republican opponent in the election, and self-assumedly target of the attack, responded furiously, “The homes of America are horrified and the intelligence of Americans is insulted by weird television advertising by which this administration threatens the end of the world unless all-wise Lyndon is given the nation for his very own” (Geer, “In Defense” 3). Barry Goldwater’s response to the ad in such a hostile way, basically claiming the advertisement was in fact against him, was exactly what the Johnson campaign was hoping for. By stating that this ad was about him, Goldwater effectively connected the dots for the rest of America who had seen the ad, but had not known his stance on nuclear war, or had not picked up on the implied message of the ad. The ad was no longer implied; Goldwater provided all the evidence to complete a negative attack ad against him.

The increased attention to this ad, an ad that only aired one time, coupled with the fact that the news media and Goldwater himself enlarged the ad’s airtime and potential viewing audience. Now, people who had not seen the ad or were unaware of Goldwater’s stance on the issue were being reached when they otherwise would have been oblivious to the whole affair. If instead, Barry Goldwater had responded to the Daisy Spot by saying, “This advertisement addresses a very important issue, and I want to pay for half of its airtime for the rest of the campaign,” it would have potentially killed the issue. This is because the advertisement never mentioned his name, but when Goldwater decided to cry foul, it made him look guilty. The image Johnson produced of Goldwater being a warmongering, loose cannon Republican paid off for the Democratic Party in the long run, since LBJ won by a landslide.

Nineteen eighty-eight was an uncertain year for the future of the United States. The United States economy was recovering from the years of Reaganomics, the laissez-fair economic policy that benefited big business and the upper class, but put the rest of the United States at a disadvantage (Rothbard). Reaganomics took money away from domestic welfare programs, such as health care and homeless shelters, and redirected it towards foreign defense. This caused a reemergence of Cold War fears, mainly, the nuclear arms race against Soviet Russia (which was honestly a red herring, considering the fact that Russia’s economy was completely imploding by the mid-1980s) so foreign defense and fiscal responsibility were key issues when determining who would run the country after Reagan left office. Voters during this period were complex conservatives, basically middle of the road politically, so the campaigns had to appeal to these constituents with comprehensive and partisan free platforms in order to attract supporters.

The 1988 presidential campaign between George H. W. Bush and Michael Dukakis marked the dawn of a new era viciousness associated with negative campaigning; “observers, pundits, and scholars often view the electoral duel between George Bush and Michael Dukakis as the low point in modern presidential campaigns” (Geer, “In Defense” 111). However, when the negative media produced during this election cycle is examined closely, it can be seen that negative ads in the 1988 campaign were not radically destructive or in any way indicative of a lack of morality. In fact, the ads produced during this campaign followed the same patterns as the campaigns that came before it.

Another common rhetorical tool of political advertisements is using inartistic evidence and logic based appeals to highlight an opponent’s shortcomings or deficiencies, or call to attention fallacies in a candidate’s stances. This is seen most notably in the Tank Ad run by the George H. W. Bush campaign against Michael Dukakis in 1988. The ad showed footage of governor Dukakis driving around in an M1 Abrams tank, with the suitable attire, waving to the camera and bystanders. As Dukakis drove back and forth, the ad listed all the defense programs Dukakis actually opposed:

ANNOUNCER: Michael Dukakis has opposed virtually every defense system we developed. He opposed new aircraft carriers. He opposed anti-satellite weapons. He opposed four missile systems, including the Pershing II missile deployment. Dukakis opposed the stealth bomber, a ground emergency warning system against nuclear testing. He even criticized our rescue mission to Grenada and our strike on Libya. And now he wants to be our commander in chief. America can’t afford that risk (

His campaign advisors created the original footage of Dukakis in the tank, wanting to create a military friendly persona for the Democratic candidate (Geer, “In Defense” 4). However, this footage was quickly apprehended by the Republicans and manipulated accordingly; the advertisement’s creator, Greg Stevens, edited in the sound of gears grinding to the spot to imply that Dukakis could not even operate a tank correctly (Geer, “In Defense” 4). Though this advertisement did not provide any information regarding Bush’s stance on defense, or how it differed from Dukakis, it did bring to light important aspects of Dukakis’ policy. As mentioned before, this spot used logic based appeals to persuade its audience; for example, it stated all the defense systems Dukakis was against, then said, “and now he wants to be our commander in chief. America can’t afford that risk” ( The list of defense systems Dukakis opposed also counts as inartistic proof, since that record could not be manipulated. It made the public known that Dukakis was not as strong on defense as he claimed to be, an allegation that needed to be addressed since the Cold War and arms race were still very real issues during the 1988 election cycle. Likewise, Dukakis’ misrepresentation on defense policies was something that the public needed to be aware of and have corrected so they fully understood the candidate.

While this advertisement was not representing a new low point in campaign advertisement, it did spawn a new type of negative advertisement – ads that were now focusing on negativity and attack advertising itself. Before the contest in 1988, opposition media was not a concern in any presidential campaign (Geer, “In Defense” 116). A very disgruntled Dukakis aired a response to the Tank ad:

I’m fed up with it. Haven’t seen anything like it in 25 years of public life. George Bush’s negative TV ads, distorting my record, full of lies and he knows it. I’m on the record for the very weapons systems his ads say I’m against. I want to build a strong defense. I’m sure he wants to build a strong defense. So this isn’t about defense issues. It’s about dragging the truth into the gutter. (

While Dukakis airing counterattack ads may initially explain why the 1988 election was a new low point in presidential campaigning, it actually proves the opposite. Though candidates had complained about negative advertising before Dukakis, Dukakis was the first to actually buy airtime and air an attack ad against another attack ad. This is important because it created a new sense of accountability for each candidate. Dukakis was forced to defend his stance, provide evidence of his record, and clarify why he would be the better candidate than Bush.

The Tank spot was also criticized by Dukakis and the public for its use of exaggeration when explaining Dukakis’ stance on defense. Exaggeration is a common criticism of negative campaigns; however, there is a misunderstanding that negative ads make use of excessive exaggeration. While it is true, negative advertisements do indeed embellish the truth, positive appeals make just as many exaggerations. In a positive spot ran later in 1988 by the Dukakis campaign, the governor tried to appeal to fiscally conservative voters as he highlighted the fact that, as governor of Massachusetts, he had balanced the state budget ten times (Geer, “In Defense” 5). Though this fact is true, the ad failed to mention that balancing the state’s budget was constitutionally mandated. Anyone could have been governor and the budget would still have been balanced. Dukakis mislead the public by implying that he was fiscally conservative, a trait important for the recovering economy and during a time of complex conservatism.

Yet this ad and positive ads in general are not examined as closely as negative ads since people often assess the substance of negative advertisements strictly and presume that positive advertisements are entirely truthful and precise (Geer, “In Defense” 5). In both instances the claims were misleading; Dukakis was not weak on defense, nor was he fiscally conservative. Here is the problem: propaganda, by its very nature, exaggerates. Candidates want to build a strong case for their campaign on both spectrums, so they exaggerate the positives – Dukakis balancing Massachusetts budget – and the negatives – Bush exaggerating Dukakis’ stance on defense. Though both ads were misleading, the positive spot was accepted, while the negative ad was scrutinized and dissected. Eventually, the Tank ad was the spot that resonated most with the voters on Election Day. Though the Bush – Dukakis race was predicted to be a close one, “Dukakis departed from Atlanta 17 points ahead of George Bush in the polls” election day proved these predictions false; “once the Republicans had their moment on the tube, Bush caught up and ultimately left Dukakis behind in the dust” (Tyler 1).

The last campaign examined in this paper, the 2004 Bush – Kerry campaign, poses an interesting dilemma when trying to research it. For one, historical perspective is next to impossible to gauge, as even though President Obama is in the White House, we’re still very much the tail end George W. Bush era; and the world is still feeling the effects of his first term as president, not to mention his second. Likewise, it is not apparent how the results of the 2004 election have affected subsequent elections, as the 2008 primaries and general election are still being studied, and the country is still wavering on their opinion of the new commander in chief versus the old. Finally, there simply is not the chronological cushion that allows for detailed analysis and explanation of voting trends, the election results themselves, and the long-term effects of the election. Basically, forty-four years of hindsight garner a more accurate assessment of the Johnson versus Goldwater campaign, and all of its subsequent effects, whereas five years after Bush v. Kerry still finds most of America in shock. That being said, the following section will be considerably shorter than the previous campaigns, and will focus more on why the negativity occurred, and not the effects of the campaign.

The most negative presidential campaign run in the past forty-four years was the Bush – Kerry contest in 2004, as 49% of the advertisements produced during this cycle were attacks (Geer, “In Defense” 36). There are several reasons why this campaign became so negative. One, the parties were greatly polarized. Polarized parties breed more negativity because there are more partisan disagreements among candidates and the electorate. Even though Bush ran his campaign around the notion of being a unifier, not a divider, he ran an extremely negative race. More than 50% of the advertisements produced by his campaign were attacks against Kerry (Geer, “In Defense” 153). There were significant differences between Bush and Kerry on numerous issues, and Bush wanted to make those differences known to the public. The fundamental difference between Democrats and Republicans, this polarization between parties, provides the opportunity for negativity.

Two, it was a close race (Geer, “In Defense” 41). Close races breed more negativity because there is more competition between states and delegates. The last reason for the increase in negativity in the 2004 campaign is that both the candidates were filthy rich (not Perot rich, but still filthy rich). Money increases the amount of negativity, because rich candidates can afford to air spots in several media markets multiple times, and they can also afford to create more ads geared towards specific audiences, and air those nonstop. It is worth mentioning that though 2004 is regarded as the most negative campaign in recent times, there was still a fifty-fifty split between positive and negative advertisements produced during the election (Geer, “Personal Interview”).

The most effective rhetorical arguments are the ones that incorporate all three of the forms of proof (Crewell). The opposition media produced by the Bush campaign during 2004 was certain to integrate ethos, logos, and pathos into each advertisement. The Windsurfing spot included emotional appeals by playing at the notion of Kerry being a flip-flopper, a term that concerned the audience since they wanted a stable leader during a time of war. It also diminished the credibility of Kerry by showing his sporadic voting record, and integrated logical arguments by laying out Kerry’s stance, and questioning his commitment.

The central concern in this campaign was the operations, occupation, and consequences of the Iraq war. The Iraq war overshadowed all other domestic and international concerns in the election, and the majority of advertisements produced during this cycle mentioned the Iraq war in one form or another. “President Bush’s ads presented him as a steady commander in chief during dangerous times, while Senator Kerry’s ads argued that the Democratic challenger is more in touch with the daily needs of the ordinary voter” ( The Bush campaign found itself in an unseen predicament, the public was not responding in the least to the positive advertisements the party ran. This is because Bush was the incumbent candidate, and the public had already decided how they felt about George Bush, and no new positive appeal would change their opinions (Geer, “Personal Interview”). The Bush campaign realized that there was no way to move the president’s approval ratings up, but they could move Senator Kerry’s numbers down, so they turned the campaign negative. One such ad created to keep Kerry’s ratings down was the Windsurfing Ad. In this spot, John Kerry glides back and forth on a windsurfer, while the narrator listed the various inconsistencies in the senators voting record.

NARRATOR: In which direction would John Kerry lead? Kerry voted for the Iraq war, opposed it, supported it and now opposes it again. He bragged about voting for the eighty-seven billion to support our troops before he voted against it. He voted for education reform and now opposes it. He claims he’s against increasing Medicare premiums but voted five times to do so. John Kerry: whichever way the wind blows. (

This advertisement was produced in order to accentuate John Kerry’s reputation as a “flip-flopper,” a term now almost synonymous with the senator to this day. It used Kerry’s strongest quality, his “thirty-two years of votes and public pronouncements” against him by uncovering enormous contradictions in his voting record (Geer, “In Defense” 82).  It provided specific, researched documentation, and laid out all the facts for the viewers to see. This also raised doubts on whether Kerry’s current platform could be trusted, since he had such a long history of changing his mind, and if he was capable to lead a country down a stable track during a time of war. This message must have struck a cord with American voters, as they reelected Bush (narrowly, very, very narrowly) for a second term.

There is one advertisement that might stand out as a glaring omission to the 2004 contest: the Swift Boat advertisement aired against Kerry. This advertisement was run by a 527 group, Swift Vets and POWs for Truth, not the Bush campaign, and opens up a whole new proverbial, can of worms. 527 plays an ever increasing, critical role in the campaigning process, but their significance and influence extend far past the scope of this paper, and would better be examined in a research paper (or book) of their own.

Negative television advertisements have played a pivotal role in presidential politics since 1964. In each of the examined campaigns, the negative ads produced educated the public, increased candidate accountability, and continually promoted the democratic process. There is a joke among political media wonks that the only difference between negative and positive ads is that negative ads have fact in them (Geer, “Personal Interview”). While this may seem counterfactual on its face, after researching and comparing presidential media, I believe this statement is true. After reviewing and discussing presidential campaigns with Professor John Geer, there are several important trends that further justify negativity’s importance in political media, and the supremacy of negative advertisements over positive advertisements.

First, negative ads are more about issues than positive ads – issues such as education, health care, foreign policy – and we (the voting public) want campaigns to be about issues. Also, negative advertisements tend to be more specific than positive ads. If a candidate states in an advertisement that they are strong on defense that provides the voting public with no real information. What candidate is going to say that they are weak on defense? However, when a candidate runs a spot against another candidate, it forces the opposition to be specific and direct; for example, the Tank ad listed all the defense programs Dukakis opposed. Being more specific makes points stronger, and explains why something is. Finally, negative advertisements tend to be more about key issues (key issues meaning what the public finds important during that campaign) than positive ads, such as the Daisy ad addressing the topic of nuclear weapons. Whatever issues the American public finds most pressing during an election, they are more likely to be discussed in negative advertisements than positive advertisements. All of these factors ultimately result in greater responsibility among candidates, and enlighten the public.

As seen in this paper, negativity has been a part of this countries foundation since the day a group of irritated, slightly inebriated colonists decided to form a Continental Congress and declare that “all men are created equal.” Fast forward to 2011, and all of the sudden, Democrats and Republicans disagreeing on how to run the country seems like a bad thing. Democracy requires negativity; leaders need to be held accountable and the public needs to be able to criticize those in power. This country has survived and prospered on the parties going back and forth and raising doubts about each other. Disagreement is the basis for democracy and doing away with negativity would make us certainly far less democratic.

Meg graduated Summa Cum Laude from Columbia College Chicago in May of 2009. She has degrees in Writing and Producing Television, and Political Science. She is currently producing a sketch comedy web series for teenagers, but one day hopes to work in political media.

Works Cited

Crewell, Dustin. “The Art of Rhetoric: Ethos, Logos, and Pathos.” Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) Home Page. 11 Mar. 2009 <>.

Geer, John G. In Defense of Negativity. Chicago, Il: University of Chicago P, 2006.

Geer, John G. Telephone interview. 15 Mar. 2009

Kerbel, Matthew. Remote & Controlled: Media Politics in a Cynical Age. 2nd ed. Boulder, CO: Westview P, 1998.

Lavin, Frank. “See Spots Run: Old TV Campaign Ads, Now on the Web. ” Wall Street Journal  [New York, N.Y.] 3  Aug. 2004, Eastern edition: D.8

O’Donnell, Victoria. Television Criticism. Minneapolis: Sage Publications, Inc, 2007.

Rapp, Christof. “Aristotle’s Rhetoric ().” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 11 Mar. 2009 <>.

Rothbard, Murray N. “The Myths of Reaganomics.” Ludwig von Mises Institute – Homepage. 9 June 2004. Mises Institute. 13 May 2009 <>.

The Living Room Candidate. 06 Feb. 2009 <>.

Tyler, Gus. “How the Democrats are Different.” New Leader os 75 (1992):  1-3. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Columbia College Chicago, Chicago, IL. 7 Feb 2009.

Van Hoesel, Frans. “Cold War.” Cold War. Library of Congress’s Soviet Archives. 12 May 2009 <>.

Sex, Drugs, and Rock and Roll: Modern Morality on STUDIO 60 ON THE SUNSET STRIP

by Sunny Franklin

Morality is defined as, “principles concerning the distinction between right and wrong or good and bad behavior.” While on the surface Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip appears to be a drama mainly concerned with romance and the conflicting nature of art and commerce, it is actually a series immersed in moral ambiguity and debate, representing a post-modern rebellion against traditional, binary entrenched value systems.

Aaron Sorkin, the creator of Studio 60, structured the show in an opportune manner for exploration of social codes and political views. The series blatantly addresses many controversial issues in plot lines, and the diversity of the characters allows the series to comment on society more evenhandedly. Studio 60 follows the trend of heightened candor in network programming, reflecting what our nation currently views as acceptable entertainment and action.

Our nation is experiencing what some have called “the culture wars.” Strong divisions exist in the population’s worldviews, and as seen in the recent Presidential election, race, gender, religion, and other seemingly eternal themes remain issues for the American people. In terms of popular vote, we can see that the nation is evenly split on which candidate they favored, despite Barack Obama’s victory in the Electoral College. Studio 60 addresses the disparities in our country’s collective thought process, largely through the characters of Jack Rudolph, Matt Albee, and Harriet Hayes.

As is common with narrative and ideological analysis, I approached my research by viewing the entire series of Studio 60 twice. Episodes selected for repeated viewing included “Nevada Day Part I and II” and “The Cold Open.” Reading interviews with Aaron Sorkin and watching behind the scenes footage of the show also helped me to grasp the show’s framing.

In this paper I will focus a great deal on narrative theory. The way stories are told and through which characters, affects not only the show’s plots, but also the cultural implications and societal criticisms being discussed. This will be fed by textual analysis and feed into cultural studies, looking at how accurately the show represents topics.

The characters on the show do not serve merely as fables for moral exploration. Many episodes feature discourse or diatribes about different social issues, which I can explore more deeply in textual analysis. Even further into my analysis will be the ‘show within a show’ part of the series, where morality is addressed directly, but by fictional characters.

Sorkin would have us believe that his work is in fact not steeped in ideology. “In regards to my writing,” says Sorkin, “I’ve never had anything I’ve wanted to convince you of or tell you or teach you or show you where you’re wrong I don’t have a political background, and I’m not a political sophisticate.” Even if unintentional, through narrative analysis, we can dissect some of the meaning in Studio 60 (Fahy 14). Narratives are, in effect, “the stories our culture tells itself to purify and justify the values and beliefs that sustain it and provide it with an identity” (O’Donnell 92).

In his essay “The Republic of Sorkin”, John Nein discusses Sorkin’s film A Few Good Men, saying, “What also distinguishes it from a conventional courtroom drama is the sophisticated way it creates moral terrain that doesn’t fit into simple notions of right and wrong” (Fahy 199). This statement can most certainly be applied to Studio 60. Though specific characters may state their belief in certain time-honored binaries, the narrative dissembles such ideas through discussion and exploration of situations, both personal and public, for all of the characters. In this way, Studio 60 can be seen as representing a postmodern worldview.

The character of Harriet Hayes is largely the center of moral dialogue in the series. She proclaims herself to be a Christian, and while her faith never waivers through the show, her ideas about how her faith informs her career and personal relationships evolve. In the episodes “Nevada Day Part I” and “Nevada Day Part II”, Harriet’s religious and moral convolution becomes the catalyst for other major explorations in the show, as well as character development.

In these episodes Harriet is revealed to have given an interview in which she seemed undecided on the issue of gay marriage. This provokes a former fan of Harriet’s recorded music to approach her on the street, reveal himself as homosexual, and aggressively explain to her his distaste for her comments. This incident is interesting in that it paints gay men in an unusual light. Largely emasculated and stereotyped on network television, this exchange, though displaying the gay man as the hostile antagonist, also moves away from the conventions associated with that group, allowing the character to be reactionary and physically threatening.

The verbal exchange ends with Tom Jeter, Harriet’s friend and cast mate, defending her, perhaps a bit overzealously, knocking the instigator to the ground. A whirlwind of cause and effect situations erupt, leading to Tom being imprisoned in a small Nevada town where prostitution is legal, but marijuana use is considered a felony. This setting allows Sorkin to explore the codes and culture of non-Hollywood. The nation’s supposed values are often pitted as antithetical from those of Matt Albee and Daniel Tripp, the main characters of Studio 60. Through the episode, it is revealed that these differences are largely superficial, and that perceived cultural differences really boil down to the pride and prejudice of both factions.

Harriet and Matt’s constant bickering and relatively volatile relationship eventually sends Matt into a depression, and plunges him into dangerous experimentation with prescription medicine. Studio 60’s consistent involvement of controlled substances as key plot points and even character traits, present an interesting moral question in our current era, where Regan’s war on drugs has been largely abandoned, but prohibitive legislation remains.

Thomas Fahey writes, “It is rather clichéd to talk of writers with alcohol and drug problems, but this is particularly relevant to Sorkin’s public image. We associate genius with such problems” (2). With this concept in mind, substance abuse as seen in Studio 60, could be interpreted as romanticized and even promoted, given that the characters involved are also depicted as high functioning and happy in comparison to those not self-medicating. A quotation from Sorkin from 2002 also lends itself to the reading of drug usage in his works as something bordering on comedic: “My first play, A Few Good Men, opened on Broadway when I was 28 and didn’t close for another 497 performances. I followed that with an off-Broadway disaster called Making Movies. I followed that with … a 28 day stay at the Hazelden Center in Minnesota to kick a cocaine habit” (3).

Humorously phrased anecdotes such as this come across as disarming, as do many of Sorkin’s characters, despite their flaws. The quick dialogue and winning exchanges between characters might mask some underlying evil of drug usage, but for the most part, Studio 60 presents the subject as an important one, but also one that is somewhat benign.

Like with sexuality, there is no clear determination of the true nature of addiction in the show. Rather, different characters face different challenges, some of which they perceive as serious, and some of which they seem to think laughable. Multiple references to marijuana are made throughout the series, including Three Six Mafia smoking in their dressing room when they make a cameo as a musical act. Simon Styles jokes about being raised over a heroin dealership in “The Option Period” and his use of pot is discussed as commonplace until it leads to Jeter’s arrest in “Nevada Day.”

In the episode “The Focus Group”, news breaks that Jordan was ticketed for drunk driving years prior to her hiring at NBS. Danny says something to her about this and she retorts that, “Mine was booze five years ago, yours was coke three weeks ago.” Later in the episode Danny explains to Jordan that his coke habit never put anyone’s life at risk besides his own, while operating a vehicle under the influence but dozens of lives at stake. Jordan seems to accept this statement, and the two characters move forward with little further discussion of their past issues with substances.

Considered as a single incident, Danny’s statements could serve a very clear endorsement of cocaine, or at least shave off some of the villainy often associated with it. When linked with the show’s overall exploration of drugs though, a different conclusion is formed. After fighting with Harriet, Matt begins taking prescription pills in an attempt to help him feel well enough to write. He comes dangerously close to descending into addiction until Susanne, a P.A. turned assistant, confronts him. Danny immediately speaks to Matt when Susanne informs him of the situation, warning his friend about the perils of relying on chemicals to function. Matt listens to Susanne and Danny and discontinues his use of the medicines. This incident does not promote an ideology of drug use as evil, but continues to build a hierarchy of faults, on which drug abuse falls somewhere below dunk driving and plagiarism.

Religion is commonly referenced as informing morality for the general population. In America the assumed faith, and the faith of our founders, is Christianity. A number of the characters on Studio 60 refer to themselves as Christians or Protestants, but only one character regularly deals with her faith as part of her character development: Harriet. Describing herself as a Baptist, Harriet is a firm believer in the divinity of Jesus Christ, and is both celebrated and attacked for her beliefs by those around her.

Harriet’s Christianity not only informs her character, but forwards a great deal of plot. Harriet and Matt’s most recent breakup occurred because he disapproved of her performing on The 700 Club. “The Harriet Dinner” episode follows the cast and crew during the night of a Catholics in Media Gala, at which Harriet is being honored. Most of her interactions with reporter Martha O’Dell also focus on her religious beliefs.

Though Harriet is a main character of Studio 60, she is not one of the implied narrators, Matt and Danny. Matt’s religion is interesting in that he claims it more as an ethnicity, often describing himself as Jewish, but never citing any religious observances or values that the faith has instilled in him. The fact that a large portion of the show is seen through eyes of a Jewish man is a break from tradition for both Network television, and Aaron Sorkin (who is also Jewish). In Kirstin Ringelberg’s essay “His Girl Friday (and Every Day)”, she bemoans the second-rate stereotyping of Jewish characters she identifies in Sorkin’s works. “I hope that he decides to use his significant influence and talents to create a project in which the lead character, the dominant force, the person whose life is pushed forward in a positive way, can be either Jewish or female— or better yet, both” (Fahy 99). Matt Albee has partially fulfills this desire.

As it often is, sexuality as discussed on Studio 60 closely ties in with religion and commerce. Although sexual activity, particularly of the heterosexual variety, is a topic of conversation and an important part of many of the character’s lives, Sorkin chooses never to display much nudity or even physical affection. The absence of such imagery is important in a narrative analysis of the show, in that many socially engaged dramas have become more explicit in recent years, in a lazing of network standards to compete with cable and premium channels. The inclusion of sexual activities is not to be perceived as lewd, but rather gratuitous, and not necessary or appropriate to the subject matter or narrative (Chunovic 182).

Readings of Sorkin’s previous shows have led some to believe that he is a proponent of slightly subservient women, who merely attempt to act independently. “Sorkin’s ideal type, the brainy, sassy, but finally dependent woman, harkens back to some classic films and stars of the 1930s and ‘40s” (Fahy 91). This is not an unreasonable interpretation, but there are some instances in Studio 60 in which this view of women is challenged. Sex appeal and sexual relationships are portrayed in a three-dimensional way: characters visit strip clubs, debate the merits of nude modeling, admit to frequenting sex clubs, repeatedly have affairs with co-workers, and engage in pre-marital sex unapologetically. By featuring sex as a part of all the characters lives, and something they all struggle with, Studio 60 can deflect some of the previous criticism of Sorkin’s portrayals. Exploring oppositions is not the same as being a proponent and a reflection of a binary system.

One of the most interesting plot developments surrounding sexuality involves Harriet. Because of her public persona as a Christian, she believes she may be losing roles in feature films. She equates her religious beliefs with being perceived as asexual. She contemplates posing for a nude magazine spread to change her image. Simon and Tom approach her in an attempt to convince her not to pose. Harriet is confused and in her underwear; they caught her changing in her dressing room. “It’s sexy that I’m devout?” she asks.

After discussions with Matt and Jordan as to how this could affect her career, Harriet decides against the shoot. This plot line does not serve to demonize nudity or even pornography. In fact, the scene in which Harriet is half-dressed seeks to depict her as sexy as well as modest. Instead the incident feeds a part of a larger topic for the show: objectification. Objectification of both men and women occurs in the comments and actions of the characters, specifically Simon Styles and journalist Martha O’Dell. The boarder between consensual flirtation and actual harassment is depicted as very thin. Because Sorkin’s show essentially has no human antagonists (conflict is largely man against self or man against world), characters displaying what could be interpreted as distasteful behavior, are instead meant to be charming and well intentioned.

Politics, as with almost all public arenas, is steeped in ideological conflict as well as moral debate and judgment. Ringelberg says in reference to previous works, that Sorkin is, “clearly in search of a purer, more ideal America where honesty and intelligence are valued above the machinery of government and big business” (Fahy 95). This sort of rhetoric is reminiscent of many campaigns for elected office, including our most recent Presidential campaign, in which Obama’s main platform was “hope”, not specific policies. Valuing unifying themes and concepts is in itself a value judgment put forward by characters in the show. None of Sorkin’s characters are left unredeemed at the end of the series, and most affirm their status as decent through acts of loyalty, valor, and compassion.

Jack Rudolph’s character is saddled with the most political responsibility, often finding himself wedged in the middle of a situation involving government and business relations. The “Nevada Day” episodes showcase Rudolph a lot, and are really the beginnings of his character’s fleshing out. At NBS Jack is seen as the conservative, tough guy. However, when compared to the small town sheriff who makes fun of him, Jack becomes aligned with his colleagues in a way not previously shown. This promotes the same idea of loyalty, erasing all lines of partisanship.

Rudolph is also often put in the position of guardian of the wishes of the “flyover space”, the majority of the country in between the coasts. Many conflicts arise between Jack and the writers regarding sketches about 9/11, the War on Terror, and the War in Afghanistan. It is posited that though Jack has no personal qualms with the material being submitted by the show, he feels as though Americans might. He falls into the stereotypical category of network executives who, “consider ‘Middle American sensibilities’ to be [necessarily] divergent from those of the people who live in New York and Los Angeles” (Johnson 57). By providing the show with bit characters such as the sheriff and radio personalities, Sorkin seeks to even the playing field in terms of point of view represented in a show largely about the entertainment industry.

Many of the sketches within the show are political, often poking fun at conservative ideals and censorship. “Jesus as the Head of Standards and Practices” is one such sketch that gets a lot of attention, and is inspired by a report that the federal government sent representatives to Los Angeles to ask for more patriotic films. The most debated sketch of the series is the “Ealing, Missouri” bit in News 60, a mock new segment of the broadcast. The town canceled a production of The Crucible, and Matt would like to ridicule this. Harriet leads the other cast members in protest, explaining that the residents of this town make bread for a living, and deserve a little extra slack for their beliefs. The joke is eventually replaced with a benign one about forest fires, ending in the punch line, “When asked to comment, the bear said, ‘Roar!’”

It becomes evident over the twenty-two episodes, that the show’s characters take their jobs in comedy very seriously. Many actions and statements that the characters do not object to on a personal level, are lampooned on the air, emphasizing the power and influence of the media. By setting the series as a show about a show, Sorkin can comment on televisual culture and standards while, ironically, still participating in the system. Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip is not merely a show about the entertainment industry or about sketch comedy, but a show about informed civic responsibilities.

“The problem with so many mainstream films and television programs today,” writes John Nein, “is the simple mentality they engender. They have almost entirely lost their ability to create a complex moral structure— anything that would actually make us experience something deeper than mere gratification” (Fahy 200). Studio 60, through the use of complex characters, the rejection of binaries, and the unique setting of the show, manages to simultaneously challenge the surface values of the viewer, while depicting situations that resonate and satisfy. In the end, Matt and Harriet are able to move past their differences and rekindle their relationship. This touches on the hope that many Americans share: there is more that unites us than divides us.

Sunny Franklin grew up in Memphis, Tennessee, watching Nickelodeon and Law and Order (only the Jerry Orbach years). She earned a B.A. in Television from Columbia College Chicago in 2009 with a concentration in writing and producing. Sunny currently lives in Los Angeles and works as a story producer at 3Ball Productions.

Works Cited

Chunovic, Louis. One Foot on the Floor : The Curious Evolution of Sex on Television from “I Love Lucy” to “South Park” New York: TV Books, L.L.C., 2000.

Fahy, Thomas. Considering Aaron Sorkin : Essays on the Politics, Poetics and Sleight of Hand in the Films and Television Series. Boston: McFarland & Company, Incorporated, 2005.

Johnson, Victoria E. Heartland TV : Prime Time Television and the Struggle for U. S. Identity. New York: New York UP, 2008.

O’Donnell, Victoria. Television Criticism. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publictions, 2007.

Rapping, Elayne. Media-tions : Forays into the Culture and Gender Wars. New York: South End P, 1994.

Greene, Doyle. Politics and the American Television Comedy : A Critical Survey from I Love Lucy Through South Park. Boston: McFarland & Company, Incorporated, 2007.

Nelson, Robin. State of Play : Contemporary High-End TV Drama. New York: Manchester UP, 2008.

Those Who Made It (After All)

by Lynne Stanko

What makes a television show a classic? Perhaps it has an outstanding ensemble cast. Maybe the story lines and themes masterfully reflect and comment on current events or the political climate of the time. Or, the show could have just appeared at the right time on the right channel and addressed the right audience. For the 1970s sitcom The Mary Tyler Moore Show, all of those events and more transpired in order to eventually elevate the show to “classic” status. The groundbreaking subject matter and sophistication of The Mary Tyler Moore Show is due to the creative team’s unwillingness to collapse under network pressure, changes in network policies and practices, and MTM Enterprises’ high standard of quality.

No part of television is free from a string of causes and effects. Every frame on the screen, word in the script, and extra in the background appears on the show because of the people involved with and the nature of television production. This idea is the center of production context criticism, a critical theory that dissects television programming and observes how workers and decisions at all levels affect every facet of the final product.

When critically analyzing a show using production theory, there are three different levels one can choose from: micro, macro, and mid-range. Micro-level criticism focuses on an individual worker and the daily pressures of his or her job. Mid-range criticism explores how the organizational structure of a company impacts the shows it produces. Macro-level sees the larger picture, looking at how networks interact in the marketplace.

In 2005, James S. McLean of Concordia University conducted a case study of CKCK Television in Regina, Saskatchewan. He compared the operations of the TV newsroom in the 1980s to those in place now (McLean 325). He focused on the employees’ daily work and the institutional rules. McLean was using mid-range criticism to analyze how, or if, journalistic morality was maintained throughout the years.

Production theory also deals with the hierarchy of the television business. Critics analyze this using “power roles,” based on Joe Turrow’s thirteen positions of power in television production. The task for every level of power is “to use resources strategically to gain control over resources needed from others” (Vande Berg, Gronbeck, and Wenner 265).

Anna Zoellner of the Institute of Communications Studies and the University of Leeds studied how power struggles affect the final outcome in British documentaries (Zoellner 503). She also looked at how the decisions made by individuals such as the producer and groups like the production company influence different aspects of the program. Zoellner was using production theory, specifically the idea of power roles, to analyze why certain content made it to air while other scenes did not.

The production theory allows for critical analysis of the minutest parts of television (for example, the janitor who cleans the sound-stage at night) to the largest and most public affairs (like the network wars over Conan O’Brien’s ousting). It examines how one individual can influence a generation of television viewers just by deciding what should get on a show and what shouldn’t. Most importantly, production theory proves the power of media makers, and explains why we must be ethical and responsible in our decision-making.

In order to appreciate the success of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, one must first understand the key players in the creation of the show, the company that was formed in order to promote and protect the show, and the marketplace and competition for networks at the time. These three scenarios can be analyzed by using the three levels of production context criticism: micro, mid-range, and macro.

On a micro level, a few talented, ambitious individuals made The Mary Tyler Moore Show possible. Mary Tyler Moore, Dick Van Dyke, Grant Tinker, Jim Brooks, and Allan Burns started it all.

Dick Van Dyke was of course Mary’s co-star in The Dick Van Dyke Show in the 1960s (Alley and Brown 1). When that show ended, Mary embarked on new acting ventures (Alley and Brown 1). After a few failed movies and Broadway shows, however, Mary’s career came to a standstill (Alley and Brown 1). Then, in 1969, Mary’s generous friend Dick Van Dyke asked her to star in a CBS special with him entitled Dick Van Dyke and the Other Woman (Tinker and Rukeyser 87). Van Dyke more or less handed the show over to Mary allowing her to showcase her acting, dancing, and singing skills (Tinker and Rukeyser 87). The audience was charmed and CBS quickly offered Mary her own series (Tinker and Rukeyser 87).

This is where Grant Tinker and his brilliant mind for television business came in (Tinker and Rukeyser 87). At that time, Tinker had already spent over twenty years in television and was serving as programming executive at 20th Century Fox (Tinker and Rukeyser 87). He was happy working for other people, but was also curious to see if he could succeed in forming and running his own company (Tinker and Rukeyser 87). When CBS offered his wife her own show, he quickly negotiated a series commitment of thirteen episodes (Tinker and Rukeyser 87). While Moore was just happy to have her own show, Tinker recognized the potential for a new business venture (Tinker and Rukeyser 87). Thirteen episodes meant an increased likelihood of the show getting on the air and gaining success, which would decrease the financial risk of Tinker and Moore starting a production company (Tinker and Rukeyser 87). With that, MTM Enterprises, Inc. was born, although Moore thought it should be called GAT, as she knew that Grant Tinker would be running it (Alley and Brown 3).

Once Moore and Tinker had a series commitment, Tinker moved to the task of hiring a creative team (Tinker and Rukeyser 88). Instead of picking a safe, seasoned writer, Tinker persuaded James Brooks and Allan Burns to co-create, produce, and write the new series (Feuer 5). Brooks and Burns had worked on the classroom dramedy Room 222, but CBS was still not confident in their ability (Tinker and Rukeyser 89). The network’s distaste of the writers intensified when they pitched the idea of Mary playing a divorcee (Alley and Brown 5). Brooks and Burns wanted to write relevant, truthful, edgy scripts, and they felt that Mary was the best person to give divorce a new face in the media (Alley and Brown 4). The network was horrified; they thought people would think Mary was divorced from Dick Van Dyke (Alley and Brown 4). CBS begged Tinker to fire them and find someone else, but he refused (Alley and Brown 5). Brooks and Burns were caught in a difficult position– they didn’t want to quit and risk damaging the reputation of Moore and Tinker, but they didn’t want to compromise their artistic integrity either (Alley and Brown 5). They decided to stay on the project and brainstorm new ideas that they still found interesting and relevant to the early 1970s (Alley and Brown 5). Finally they came up with the idea of setting the show in a newsroom, based on Brooks’ experience of working in one for years (Tinker and Rukeyser 91). Mary wouldn’t be divorced, but she would be just getting out of a long-term relationship with her live-in boyfriend (Tinker and Rukeyser 91). The twenty-one page written proposal to CBS ended with:

This series will, as we hope you have noted, be comedically populated. But it is clearly about one person living in and coping with the world of the 1970s… tough enough in itself… even tougher when you’re thirty, single, and female… when despite the fact that you’re the antithesis of the career woman, you find yourself the only female in an all-male newsroom. (Tinker and Rukeyser 95)

Before leaving the topic of individuals, it is important to note the power roles being played. Grant Tinker put his marriage, career, reputation, and financial welfare on the line for this show. One aspect of production context theory is Dimmick and Colt’s nine-level hierarchy.  Formal hierarchies display normative social influence, meaning one person or group exercises power over another submissive person or group. In this case, even though CBS clearly had more power than Tinker, he defended the show and its creators until the network eventually backed down. It was perhaps due to interpersonal influence, where individuals’ decisions affect the outcome of a show, that these CBS executives accepted the reversal of power and trusted Tinker’s intuition. It would not be the last time that Tinker overrode a network decision. (Vande Berg, Gronbeck, and Wenner 265)

Macro-level issues such as developments in advertising and shifts in demographics benefited The Mary Tyler Moore Show during its first season, allowing it to gain and keep an audience.

In the 1960s, the time of single-sponsor television programs came to an end. Now networks had total control over programming, and were able to sell time slots to different advertisers. However, beginning in 1971, cigarette ads were banned from the airwaves, thus emptying many prime-time commercial slots. The networks panicked as their revenues dropped by $43 million dollars (nearly half) in one year. CBS was forced to lower its rates, reduce programming budgets, and cut the minimum time that advertisers could buy from one minute to thirty seconds. These changes made advertisers flock to the network, spending $100 million dollars in two weeks and prompting CBS to raise its rate by 25%. Then the Prime Time Access Rule of 1970 restricted the amount of network prime time programming to just three hours. The new scarcity of ads made advertisers even more crazed to win a spot, and upped the price of ad time even more. (Kerr 66-67)

The creation of TMTMS also coincided with the second wave of the woman’s movement, and thus attracted many feminists who were happy to see a single career woman at the center of a sitcom. This made advertisers finally recognize working women as consumers instead of just the housewives who bought soap and detergent. CBS capitalized on this idea, publishing a guide entitled “Where the Girls Are,” which detailed the female demographics of each of its programs:

Its cover featured a revolving disk which would reveal at a glance the age distribution of retail buyers of 91 different products bought mainly by women. ‘And the pages inside,’ said the brochure, ‘show you how you can apply this handy information to Nielsen’s new audience reports by age of lady viewer.’ (Kerr 67)

The change in demographic was in large part due to a risky decision made by new CBS Network president Bob Wood. In 1970, CBS was the leading network, but Wood knew that the most popular shows attracted a rural, aging audience. He canceled many high-rated shows like Petticoat Junction, The Beverly Hillbillies, and Green Acres in order to make room with new programs that would hopefully attract a younger, more urban demographic. In his autobiography, Tinker praises Bob Wood as the best network president ever, citing Wood’s knowledge in sales, respect for creatives, and persuasion with affiliates. The Wood “revolution,” as Tinker called it, might have started with Mary Tyler Moore, but it was driven into full force a year later with All in the Family. Together these shows provided CBS with Saturday night “literate comedy,” which would eventually grow to include M*A*S*H, Bob Newhart, and Carol Burnett, making it possibly the most entertaining and successful lineup in history. (Tinker and Rukeyser 103)

Besides a beloved star, talented writers, and network support, The Mary Tyler Moore Show had one other very important attribute: a production company that strove for enlightened humor and honest entertainment.

This mid-range analysis looks at the style of MTM Enterprises, Inc. and the shows it produced. MTM sitcoms had to operate on several levels in order to appeal to a liberal, sophisticated audience as well as the mass audience. To the larger everyman audience, TMTMS was a warm situational comedy that could seem like a family show set in the workplace due to the close relationships of the characters. Yet to the “quality” audience, the show was sharp and self-aware, commenting on social issues and dynamics in work and family life. The ability for TMTMS to play to both crowds meant that the sophisticated audience could enjoy watching an ordinary, popular show without feeling guilty, and the larger section of the audience would be entertained and not talked down to. (Feuer 56)

The idea of a work-family was no doubt inspired by the boom of divorce rates in the 1970s. Until The Mary Tyler Moore Show, most sitcoms were centered on the idealized nuclear family where all problems can be solved by the end of the episode. Now that the traditional family was no longer relevant to many Americans, TMTMS offered a solution: forming bonds with one’s coworkers could fill the void left when relatives deserted, disappointed, or died. (Feuer 57-59)

MTM Enterprises was also determined to represent women in a much more liberated, empowered light than most other production companies. Producer Bob Schiller of All in the Family lamented in 1978 that now that The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Maude were over, television lacked a powerful female lead. The few exceptions to that over the next few years would come mostly from MTM, with strong female characters in Hillstreet Blues, Remington Steele, and St. Elsewhere. Even when the second wave died down– in fact, at a time of intense backlash against feminism– MTM Enterprises was dedicated to showcasing empowered women on the small screen. (Meehan 130-131)

While the timing and surface characteristics of The Mary Tyler Moore Show cause many viewers to believe it to be feminist, the subtext of most episodes and the relationships between characters reveal the show to still be deeply rooted in traditional patriarchal values. Critics have said that while Mary is a career woman, she plays the role of wife, daughter, mother, and sister to her co-workers. This enables men to feel comfortable with a woman in the workplace, as she is still fulfilling traditional roles. In her book Prime Time Feminism, Bonnie J. Dow recounts the plot of the first episode. Mary Richards enters the WJM newsroom in order to interview for a secretarial position, but instead is offered a job as producer. Mary takes the producing job, even though it pays less and her coworker informs her that she was hired to be the “token woman.” Dow explains that this clearly demonstrates Mary’s level of enlightenment: she recognizes the sexism in being hired for her gender instead of ability, and in being paid much less than a man would be paid in the same position; yet she accepts the job and the sexism that comes along with it. (Dow 25-31)

When criticizing the show for its sexism versus its feminism, it is important to note the time period. While in 1970 the woman’s movement was underway, not every woman that would eventually turn feminist had gotten involved yet. To look at this at the micro level, Treva Silverman was hired as the first major writer after Brooks and Burns. Silverman immediately identified with the character of Rhoda, Mary Richards’ underdog sidekick, and wrote most of Rhoda’s lines. In the beginning, Silverman gave Rhoda the same self-deprecating humor that she herself had, always talking about dieting and not dating. However, as the show progressed, both Silverman and Valerie Harper, the actress who played Rhoda, became heavily involved with the woman’s movement, and Rhoda’s lines began to change. Silverman started to take pride in her womanhood, and Rhoda, in turn, began to respect herself more. Suddenly Rhoda was more confident and became enough of a winning character to lead her own spin-off in 1974. The point is that a series cannot be criticized for its political stance or lack thereof just based on the pilot. A show, along with its characters, actors, and writers, needs time to find its audience, voice, and message. (Alley and Brown 41-42)

Ultimately, what makes The Mary Tyler Moore Show a classic is the sum of all its parts: the groundbreaking creative team; the production company, with its dedication to producing quality television; and the sheer luck that a show about a single woman in a big city was developed just as the second wave of feminism was underway, CBS hired a new president who wanted to add urban shows to the network lineup, and advertisers recognized that working women were an untapped group of consumers. The production theory allows one to draws these conclusions based on macro, mid-range, and micro level criticism. Without this analysis, it’s difficult to understand how and why a show is a success. To be a successful media maker and mimic the achievements of classic shows, one has to be able to analyze what made them classics in the first place.

Lynne Stanko is a television writing and producing major at Columbia College Chicago. Her interest in media studies goes back to the discovery of classic television at an early age. She strives to integrate the  lessons of the legends that came before her with postmodern ideas. Therefore, it should be no surprise she loves “Mad Men”– as it’s a show set in her favorite era, commenting on the social issues of both then and now. And, it’s damn entertaining.

Works Cited

Alley, Robert S., and Irby B. Brown. Love is All Around: The Making of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. New York: Dell Publishing, 1989. 1-42. Print.

Dow, Bonnie J. Prime Time Feminism: Television, Media Culture, and the Women’s Movement since 1970. N.p.: Bonnie J. Dow, 1996. 25-31. Print.

Feuer, Jane, Kerr, Paul, and Vahimagi, Tise, eds. MTM Enterprises: An Overview. By Jane Feuer. London: British Film Institute, 1984. 5. Print.

Feuer, Jane, Kerr, Paul, and Vahimagi, Tise, eds. The Making of (The) MTM (Show). By Paul Kerr. London: British Film Institute, 1984. 56. Print.

Feuer, Jane, Kerr, Paul, and Vahimagi, Tise, eds. The MTM Style. By Jane Feuer. London: British Film Institute, 1984. 56-59. Print.

McLean, James S. “When Head Office Was Upstairs: How Corporate Concentration Changed a Television Newsroom.” Canadian Journal of Communication 30.3 (2005): 325-342. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 13 Feb. 2010.

Meehan, Diana M. Ladies of the Evening: Women Characters of Prime-Time  Television.             N.p.: Diana M. Meehan, 1983. 130-31. Print.

Tinker, Grant, and Bud Rukesyser. Tinker in Television. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994. 87-103. Print.

Vande Berg, Leah R., Bruce E. Gronbeck, and Lawrence A. Wenner. Critical Approaches to Television. 2nd ed. Allyn & Bacon, Inc., 2003. 265. Print.

Zoellner, Anna. “Professional Ideology and Program Conventions: Documentary Development in Independent British Television Production.” Mass Communication & Society 12.4 (2009): 503-536. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 13 Feb. 2010.

Television To Die For… Literally

by Nathan Stevens

On an episode of Six Feet Under, a customer of the Fisher and Diaz funeral home asks Nate Fisher, “Why do people have to die?” In the most monotone inflection of voice, he responds with, “To make life important.”   Death is an inevitability that we accept because, well, we have to.  Most people, however, do not work through these feelings until well past childhood. The children who do confront death at an early age are often profoundly shaped by the experience.  Using a psychoanalytic approach can help explain adult television protagonists who had death as a central theme in their character’s childhood. The adult characters across these shows exhibit three specific behaviors: the close emulation of a parent who is no longer alive, voyeurism, and repression or secrecy.

To demonstrate this claim, I have chosen to examine three shows. The first is Six Feet Under (2001-2005), a drama surrounding the Fischer family, who own and operate a funeral home. The main characters were raised in this home, so, seeing a dead body and constantly dealing with grief stricken families is a day to day occurrence for the Fisher children.

The second television show, a magical, whodunit, dramedy is Pushing Daisies (2007-2009). It follows the main character Ned, a man who at a prepubescent age found out he has a supernatural power. If Ned touches a corpse, the deceased comes back to life. If he touches the now, live body,  it returns to death forever. If he keeps someone alive for longer than one minute, a being of the same essence in the close vicinity loses all signs of life.  Ned learned about this power when, as a young child, he accidentally brought his mother back to life, which, after one minute, killed his childhood sweetheart’s father across the street. In the evening, when Ned’s Mom gives him a kiss goodnight, she then drops to the floor, and he finds he can  no longer revive her.

The third show being analyzed is The Sopranos (1999-2007). This multi- award winning drama follows the everyday struggles of Tony Soprano, the boss of an organized crime unit in New Jersey, who attends therapy sessions with his psychiatrist, Dr. Melfi. As a child of a mob boss, the young Tony, was also immersed in death. Studying these three shows together proves that there is a subcategory of television called the Death Genre.

Psychoanalytical Approach and Criticism

Psychoanalysis works very differently than most critical approaches, especially when it comes to dissecting a television show.  Sigmund Freud developed psychoanalytic theory in the early 1900s to attempt  to explain individual, psychological illness.Freud argued that the id represents our needs, the ego, gives use our reasoning, and our superego works as our subconscious from what we have taken from our past experiences and emotions (Margolis, 1966). However, it was not until 1976 that the psychoanalytic approach crossed over to television with the essay “Television as Dream,” which proposed that there are similarities between television shows and dreams themselves (Wood, 1976).

There are three very important assumptions that psychoanalytic critics use. “Human thought and behavior are derived from both the conscious and the unconscious of psychological worlds […], Both the individual and the shared or social aspects of psychological life are important to people […],and  Dream work is central to human life (Vande Berg, 454-455).  In this paper, I will examine how main characters who grew up around death have unconscious beliefs that motivate their conscious adult behavior.

The Childhood and The Superego

In the death genre, I am finding that the main characters follow closely in the footsteps of their deceased parents. When people (usually children) watch and observe certain things, whether they realize how much they are paying attention or not, it gets downloaded into their unconscious. Therefore it is always buried somewhere inside their mind, even though they may not be conscious of it. Consequently, children often model their behavior after their parents.

In Pushing Daisies, Ned’s father left him at an early age to be with another woman and then had two more sons. Ned’s father ignored him, which only drew him closer to his mother.  She was a mom’s mom, always cooking and smiling. What Ned loved about her the most, and what we saw her mostly doing, was making pies. After Ned’s mother died, years later, we see him as Ned the pie maker. He works and owns a “feel good” restaurant called The Pie Hole.

In Six Feet Under, each child absorbed something different from the father, Nathaniel, who was killed in a tragic car accident. The eldest son, Nate, (who also bears his father’s name) took Nathaniel’s secretive ways of life. While Nathaniel was working as a funeral director, Nate discovered his father’s secret attic space in a property across town where he lived a double life. As an adult, Nate battles with himself to be with the woman he truly loves, Brenda, or with Lisa, the mother of his child. As a result, Nate has a double life where he hides his internal feelings from those closest to him. The second child, David, copies his father in a blatant way by becoming the funeral director of the family business. Claire, the youngest,  drives a hearse just like her dad did everyday of his professional life (though hers is more hip and lime green).

In the case of Tony, from The Sopranos, this is a man who inherited just about everything his father was. Obviously, he took over the family business and became his father’s successor. Also, as much as Tony claims to love Carmella, he is constantly cheating on her with various women like strippers and other patients of Dr. Melfi. Tony’s father was also an unfaithful husband. This is a man who couldn’t take his wife to the hospital because he was in bed with some “broad”.

Digging even deeper, the similarity grows stronger between the two men because of their relationship to two different women. As unfaithful as this father/son pairing is, they both had one woman who was their favorite mistress. For Tony, it was his one legged Russian beauty, Svetlana. Tony was unaware that his father had his own dearest mistress, until the episode titled “In Camelot” (2004) revealed that his father had a decades long love affair with Fran Felstein. Tony knew that he could not blame his father for what he did because he is only feeling his own guilt and consequently decides to help Fran financially, the same way his father did.


According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual-IV, fantasies of voyeurism are classified as a condition characterized by abnormal sexual desires, typically involving dangerous or extreme activities. It was Freudian theory that “helped shape definitions of voyeurism in American Psychiatry in the mid-twentieth century.” (Metzl, 2004)  Voyeurism is “prying into the intimate lives of others or eavesdropping on social classes either above or below our own” (Keller & Stratyner 87).  In a more simplistic description, being a voyeur means that the person likes to watch. Currently voyeurism does not directly have to be about sex. Voyeurism is another characteristic that unifies the death genre, as the characters are onlookers of dead people and each other.

In Pushing Daisies, Ned and his crime-fighting partner “touch”  people, who have been murdered, to find out who killed them, then collect the reward money. Ned’s “brought back to life” girlfriend, Chuck, enjoys watching Ned bring these people back to life because she loves Ned and wants to be a part of what he does. Also  she needs to watch these people come back to life, so she can understand her own experience. Additionally, because Ned cannot touch people once he has brought them back to life without killing them, he is relegated to just watching, instead of touching, Chuck, the woman he loves.

The main setting of Six Feet Under is inside of a funeral home, a place where loved ones go to mourn and watch their deceased family member. In The Sopranos, voyeurism is  a defense mechanism in the show. These mobsters are in a world of their own where no one can understand them. They actually try to avoid being watched, or they watch each other,  in order to stay alive.

Dino Zerilli: Since we’re kickin’ up, we were hopin’ you could, you know, watch our back?

Ralph Cifaretto: 350 buys you a hello. Watchin’ your back…that’s gonna require a little more initiative on your part.

Secrets in The Death Genre

Freud saw hysterics as people  with conflicts and harboring secrets from themselves as well as from others” (Mitchell & Black, 1995). The main characters from the shows discussed in this essay all have secret lives. Main and supporting characters have something to hide in the death genre.

In The Sopranos, Tony’s entire life is centered on a secret. The police cannot know that Tony runs an organized crime unit. If they did we would not have this show, although they do create great conflict when Tony’s nephew’s fiancé, Adriana, is sought out by the police to turn in Tony and Christopher. Mid-way through the show’s run, Tony’s house is on the verge of being inspected by the authorities. Even his wife Carmella starts to hide everything stolen or not paid for, not only to avoid losing her husband, but also to protect her precious mansion.

The same idea is working in Pushing Daisies where we find Chuck hiding the fact that she is still alive to the world because then Ned would be blamed for the accidental deaths he has caused and possibly even be sent in for science experimentation. In turn, Ned hides Chuck’s secret from his crime-stopping partner, Emerson.

Emerson: Why is your eye twitching?

Ned: My eye isn’t twitching

Emerson: [firmly] You’re eye is twitching. When people aren’t being honest, their eye twitches. [Ned’s eye twitches] Right there. Like yours did just now.

Ned: It’s… nerves. It’s a stomach thing. Like acid reflux, but…in my eye.

In Six Feet Under, David is “a character who is outed to the viewers in the very first episode, but […] remains closeted to family, colleagues and friends for much of the first season ” (Chambers, 175).  When David and his partner, Keith, prepare for a visit, the two talk about what needs to be done in preparation for the arrival of a social worker:

David: What are you looking for?

Keith: Anything that seems too uh…funny.

David: Funny ha-ha or funny gay?

Homosexuality is an integral part of our culture, and I am sure that adding a gay character into the death genre did bring in some viewers who related. The Sopranos had Vito as its closeted gay character. Perhaps Pushing Daisies should have added a secretive, gay character to increase its ratings.

The Dying Conclusion

I think that the television death genre is going to continuously grow. There are even more shows than just the three above that can be psychoanalyzed, such as Dead Like Me (2003), which centers on a college dropout who, after dying, is recruited into a grim reaper.  There is also Reaper (2007), a show that follows a boy whose parents sold his soul before birth and must work as a bounty hunter for the devil, until his own death.

In this research, I found that concepts from Freud, such as parental influence, voyeurism, and repression (secrets) can be applied to the death genre. However, I doubt Freud would have ever imagined that his work could be translated into television that is, literally, to die for.

Nathan Alan graduated Class of 2009 from Columbia College Chicago with a Bachelor’s degree in Film & Video and a heavy emphasis on screenwriting. In 2009 he won 1st Place at the Written Image Awards for best Student Feature for a screenplay titled “The Lonely Parts”. Still writing strong and making trips out to L.A. to further a career, he’s also a student at Improv Olympic learning the art and craft of improvisation.

Works Cited

“Amour Fou.” The Sopranos. HBO. 13 May 2001.

“An Open Book.” Six Feet Under. HBO. 1 July 2001.

“Bitches.” Pushing Daisies. ABC. 14 Nov. 2007.

Bun, Lisa C. Personal interview. 31 Mar. 2008.

Chambers, Samuel A. Reading Six Feet Under. New York: St. Martin’s P, 2005. 175.

“I’ll Take You.” Six Feet Under. HBO. 19 May 2002.

“In Camelot.” The Sopranos. HBO. 18 Apr. 2004.

“Isabella.” The Sopranos. HBO. 28 Mar. 1999.

Keller, James R., and Leslie Stratyner. Almost Shakespeare: Reinventing His Works for Cinema and Television. Jefferson: McFarland, 2004. 31 Mar. 2008.

Livingstone, S., & Liebes, T. (1995). “Where Have all the Mothers Gone?” Soap Opera’s Replaying of the Oedipal Story. Critical Studies in Media Communication, 12, 155-175.

Margolis, Gerald J. “Secrecy and Identity.” International Journal of Psycho-Analysis (1966).

Metzl, Jonathan. “From Scopophilia to Survivor: a Brief History of Voyeurism.” Textual Practice 18 (2004): 415-434. 31 Mar. 2008.

Mitchell, Stephen A., and Margaret J. Black. Freud and Beyond: a History of Modern Psychoanalytic Thought. New York: Basic Books, 1995. 5.

Neimeyer, Robert A. Death Anxiety Handbook: Research, Instrumentation, and Application. Washington: Taylor & Francis, 1994. 104-105.

“Pie-Lette.” Pushing Daisies. ABC. 03 Oct. 2007.

Sandler, Ph.d., Joseph. “On the Concept of Superego.” The Psychoanalytic Study of the Child (1960). 31 Mar. 2008.

Vande Berg, Leah R., Lawrence A. Wenner, and Bruce E. Gronbeck. Critical Approaches to Television. 2nd ed. Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004. 454-455. 31 Mar. 2008.

Wood, Peter. “Television as Dream.” The Critical View (1976). 31 Mar. 2008.